Up To Four? And Independent Modern Women

By Paul S Armstrong

If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or that which your right hands possess. That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.” Holy Qur’an 4:3 (A. Yusuf Ali)

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been quizzed on this very issue. How many wives does Islam allow men to have? Before we can even begin to answer this question, we must consider the historical context of the verse above. The Holy Qur’an was revealed 14 centuries ago in 7th Century Arabia, a very different society to the ones in which almost anyone lives today. Even those remaining regions, relatively undeveloped in Arabia, are still very different to the society in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed. After 14 centuries, so much has changed, for starters, the Holy Qur’an is believed in and recited in modern Arabia and to varying degrees modern Arabs, the majority of whom are Muslims, try to adhere to it’s teachings.

In the 7th Century CE, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, started out by himself and then with a small, growing group of friends – the embryonic Muslim community. Many people were opposed to his teachings, preferring to ignore them and stay in darkness, rather than address the social issues of the day. The beginnings of the concept of human rights may well have started with King Cyrus the Great, but were long forgotten in the 7th Century! People were routinely bought and sold, few took issue with this practice. Women suffered especially badly, as one would perhaps expect, when all life was something valued more in terms of gold and silver, than as something priceless and sacred.

When people consider their brothers and sisters in humanity, as nothing more than a commodity to be exploited for financial gain, all respect goes out the window. Generally speaking, only men worked outside the house. Women were treated as less than second class citizens! Most women and girls were in fact seen as property, owned by either their father, husband or if really unfortunate, a slave owner.

Verse 4:3, should therefore be seen in this historical context. The verse is actually calling for the just treatment of orphaned children, and the fair and equitable treatment of wives. Something incredibly ahead of it’s time in 7th Century Arabia! Before this verse was revealed, rich men often had innumerable wives and female slaves. This verse limits men to having four wives at the very most and even then, only under the strict condition the man looks after and supports each of them properly, fairly and equally. A revolutionary statement, which raised the status of women in Arabian society. Thus, this verse is actually encouraging women’s rights. There is no indication we should stop there either, thinking “okay, women are treated better now”. No! The verse even encourages men to marry only one wife, as this would be better, showing as elsewhere in the Qur’an, the equitability of men and women before God.

A point missed by many, is that this verse is mainly referring to orphans! While it imparts guidance on marriage, the reason is to prevent injustice to orphaned children. As even an unusual marriage arrangement, is preferable to any kind of injustice, so long as it’s agreeable to all parties concerned. Lady Ayesha, peace be upon her, even clarified some of the points raised by this verse, during the early years of Islam:

Urwa bin Az Zubair narrated that he had asked Lady Ayesha about the meaning of the statement of Allah: “If you fear that you shall not Be able to deal justly With the orphan girls, then marry (other) women of your choice two or three or four.” (Holy Qur’an 4:3)

She said, “O my nephew! This is about the orphan girl who lives with her guardian and shares his property. Her wealth and beauty may tempt him to marry her without giving her an adequate mahr (bridal-money) which might have been given by another suitor. So, such guardians were forbidden to marry such orphan girls unless they treated them justly and gave them the most suitable mahr; otherwise they were ordered to marry any other woman.” Lady Ayesha further said, “After that verse the people again asked the Prophet (about the marriage with orphan girls), so God revealed the following verses: ‘They ask your instruction concerning the women. Say: God instructs you about them and about what is recited unto you in the Book, concerning the orphan girls to whom you give not the prescribed portions and yet whom you desire to marry…’ (Holy Qur’an 4:127)

What is meant by God’s saying: ‘And about what is recited unto you is the former verse which goes: ‘If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry (other) women of your choice.’ (Holy Qur’an 4:3) Lady Ayesha said, “God’s saying in the other verse: ‘Yet whom you desire to marry’ (Holy Qur’an 4:127) means the desire of the guardian to marry an orphan girl under his supervision when she has not much property or beauty (in which case he should treat her justly). The guardians were forbidden to marry their orphan girls possessing property and beauty without being just to them, as they generally refrain from marrying them (when they are neither beautiful nor wealthy).”

Al-Bukhari 3.674

Another point often missed, is the fact verse 4:3 is referring to women living in a society, where they were routinely treated as property by men. A state of affairs which Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, clearly didn’t like, but which he knew would take generations to change. Hence, the guidance found in the Holy Qur’an, encourages equitable treatment of men and women and undermines any form of slavery, through stressing the equality of everyone before God. How can we own other people, or disown them of their inherent human rights, when we’re all equal?

Lady Khadija, peace be upon her, was a businesswoman. However, she is the only lady of the time, usually mentioned in Islamic literature as being such. One can only assume businesswomen were unusual in preislamic Arabia. The economy was very primitive, when we compare to what we understand from our modern economies. Men often had their own trade which was passed down through the family. If skilled, they could become reasonably wealthy and enjoy a good standard of living for the time. Unskilled workers were at the bottom end of the scale, many even reduced to begging. Women generally were dependants of their fathers or husbands. Many men and women were slaves… There were few “jobs” in the sense that we understand them today, those there were, almost universally only offered to men. Thus, with very few exceptions, only men were financially independent.

Few options were available to free women living in the 7th Century, either they were supported by their fathers or married and supported by their husbands. Men were therefore allowed to marry up to four wives, to protect and support those women, who may otherwise have been left destitute or forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive. This is not a general injunction, that every man should go out and have plural marriages, but something appropriate for the time and place in which it was revealed. How much society has changed for the better! All praise be to God!

Reading religious scriptures and literature out of context, then trying to apply it in modern times, creates manifold problems. Recently, a question was raised by a young British Muslim, if a lady needs to be accompanied by a wali when she gets married. ‘Wali’ means ‘friend’ in Arabic, although in this context refers to a parent or guardian -not so different from a father giving his daughter away in a Christian marriage ceremony. Although, should one actually suggest there is any connection between Muslim and Christian customs, some people in both religious communities would shirk at the suggestion!

The Holy Qur’an doesn’t dictate specific details on how a marriage ceremony should be carried out, other than pointing out marriages should be equitable, as implied in the following phrase, “…they [your spouses] are your garments and ye are their garments…” (Holy Qur’an 2:187) The fact that both husband and wife are both described in the same way, as garments to each other, implies complete equality.

For specific details on conducting marriages, one must look elsewhere, such as in the hadith collections. However, we should first recognise when consulting hadith, that hadiths are not the holy scripture of Islam, merely supplementary material. Hadith are useful in some ways, as they give us insights into the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, his companions and how they lived. Hadith are not the work of God, but the work of scholars; human beings who collected the accounts from the companions of the Prophet. As such, hadith are potentially fallible and vary in reliability from very sound to incredibly unreliable narrations.

Yahya related to me from Malik that he had heard that Said ibn al-Musayyab had said thatUmar ibn al-Khattab said, “A woman is only married with the consent of her guardian, someone of her family with sound judgement or the Sultan.” Al-Muwatta 28.5

Many of these hadith suggest that a woman requires the consent of her guardian. In most cases during 7th Century Arabia, an unmarried lady’s guardian would have been her father, unless he’d passed away. In other cases, the guardian would have been an uncle, older brother or a man who adopted her, in the case of orphans.

God’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said, “The marriage of a woman who marries without the consent of her guardians is void. (He said these words) three times. If there is cohabitation, she gets her dower for the intercourse her husband has had. If there is a dispute, the sultan (man in authority) is the guardian of one who has none.”
Abu Dawood 848, narrated by Lady Ayesha.

This hadith is interesting in today’s context. How many leaders of countries today, would take on such a role. For many, this would simply be something extra that would be way down the bottom of their list of priorities. Perhaps, this was something appropriate in those times, but clearly couldn’t be applied today. Some world leaders don’t even take care of their own country’s needs, when hit by a natural disaster! So, how could they realistically be relied upon to be guardians in the case of orphaned ladies?

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said “There is no marriage without the permission of a guardian.”
Abu Dawood 849, narrated by Abu Musa.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “An orphan virgin girl should be consulted about herself; if she says nothing that indicates her permission, but if she refuses, the authority of the guardian cannot be exercised against her will. The full information rest with the tradition narrated by Yazid.”
Abu Dawood 853, narrated by Abu Hurayrah.

This hadith highlights the absolute right of a woman to self determination, even in the case of arranged marriages. A father (or guardian) cannot force his daughter into a marriage she doesn’t wish for or approve of -such sham “marriages” are void in Islam!

However, one could still conclude from the above hadiths that a guardian is necessary, to give permission for a woman to marry. Again, one should first consider the situation in 7th Century Arabia. Most women had a guardian, unless their father had died or they were orphaned. However, what about today’s independent women? Women who work for a living and thus not dependent on any man. Should they absolutely require the permission of their father or guardian? In this context, we should consider the following hadith:

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “A guardian has no concern with a woman previously married and has no husband, and an orphan girl (i.e. virgin) must be consulted, her silence being her acceptance.”
Abu Dawood 856, narrated by Abdullah ibn Abbas

Malik related to me from Abdullah ibn al-Fadl from Nafi ibn Jubayr ibn Mutim from Abdullah ibn Abbas that the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, said, “A woman who has been previously married is more entitled to her person than her guardian, and a virgin must be asked for her consent for herself, and her consent is her silence”. Al-Muwatta 28.4

The hadith is usually understood to be referring to a woman, who was previously married and either widowed or divorced. What is the reason “a guardian has no concern with a woman previously married” and she “is more entitled to her person than her guardian”? Is it not because she is her own guardian, no longer under the protection of her father or a husband? Hence, the difference between the “virgin” woman referred to in these hadith and a widow/divorcee, is not her virginity but her independence. As such, surely this applies to any woman who is financially and socially independent, even if she’s a virgin or never been married before.

A note on guardians:

I heard God’s Messenger saying, “Everyone of you is a guardian, and responsible for what is in his custody. The ruler is a guardian of his subjects and responsible for them; a husband is a guardian of his family and is responsible for it; a lady is a guardian of her husband’s house and is responsible for it, and a servant is a guardian of his master’s property and is responsible for it.” I heard that from God’s Messenger and I think that the Prophet also said, “A man is a guardian of his father’s property and is responsible for it, so all of you are guardians and responsible for your wards and things under your care.”
Al-Bukhari 2.18 and 3.592, narrated by Abdullah ibn Umar.

Society has changed a great deal, since these hadith were written down. Hence, we need to look deeper than mere first impressions, understanding the context, history and true meaning of the narrations. If we don’t, we’ll make Islam appear antiquated and perhaps even nonsensical, when if one looks a little deeper we can see clearly, this is far from being the case! The Holy Qur’an and other sources such as hadith, provide guidance which we can reflect upon and use in our daily lives. However, for this to be effective and useful, it must first be truly understood in it’s correct context and how the wisdom contained therein translates to the present day.

2 Responses to Up To Four? And Independent Modern Women

  1. There is no indication we should stop there either, thinking “okay, women are treated better now”.

    Good point. By looking at the text in historical context, one gets a better appreciation of its broader intention, and one can extrapolate from that to an appropriate application in the modern world. Christianity and Judaism also do this.

  2. Pingback: “Up To Four? And Independent Modern Women” by Paul Salahuddin Armstrong «

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